Monday, March 9, 2009

Plan 9 From Outer Space: Revisiting a Classic

By Steve Evans
Like many of the bonafide classics in my collection, I find myself revisiting this odd little picture at least once a year.

Plan 9 (1959) is surrealism on a budget. It is also twisted, completely insane, goofy-ass weirdness; yes, and a helluva lot of fun. I've come to see this picture and other titles in director Ed Wood's awful oeuvre as the work of a consummate confidence man who managed to churn out entertaining work in spite of himself. Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp is an interesting point of entry for the uninitiated. Brave hearts would do well to dive right in; rent Plan 9 from Outer Space and see for yourself what real guerilla filmmaking is all about.

Like Woods’ Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, Jail Bait, The Sinister Urge and his freshman effort, the semi-autobiographical Glen or Glenda?, Plan 9 is compulsively watchable, like rubber-necking a bad traffic accident. Wood’s dialog – he wrote all of his own scripts – spins around like a Moebius loop, saying nothing, going nowhere. Consider these choice Plan 9 samples:

“…and remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Jeff Trent (a civilian): “I’m muzzled by Army brass!”

Air Force Captain: “Visits? That would indicate visitors.”

Lieutenant John Harper: “But one thing’s for sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible.”

Criswell: “Perhaps, on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it... for they will be from outer space.”

Yow. Has there ever been a broader spectrum of weirdos, wannabes and hangers-on than the people involved in this picture – in front of and behind the camera? Hell, morphine-addicted Béla Lugosi (at left) was billed as the star and he died after three days’ worth of shooting. Most directors would have scrapped production, but not Ed Wood. His novel solution? Wood hired his wife’s chiropractor and draped him in a vampire cape with instructions to keep his face covered. Nevermind that the chiropractor was a good 10 inches taller than poor Béla and looked nothing like him.

Examples of Wood’s ingenuity are the stuff of near-legend. Don’t have permission to shoot in a cemetery? No problem. Build one with cardboard tombstones that wobble when the actors walk by. Don’t have a budget for flying saucer special effects? Not to worry. Buy a couple of model kits, string them up on fishing line, and wave them in front of the camera. Stock footage is also helpful, both in saving precious production dollars and padding out the running time.

Sound harsh? Not at all. Let me be clear:

Plan 9 is not the worst picture ever made, as some critics have complained, and Wood is certainly not the worst director (imagine what he could have created with Michael Bay’s budgets). To condemn Wood for toiling in obscurity, with inadequate funding for his projects, is to miss the point. Wood endures (and endears) not because of his incompetence, but in spite of it. Those who would dismiss this great auteur are themselves mere jackals of bourgeois sensibility, snobs who cannot appreciate the not-inconsiderable achievements of a determined man with no talent and even less money who produced half a dozen pictures of such mesmerizing awfulness that all are fondly remembered more than 50 years later. Will anyone still watch Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor or Armageddon half a century hence?

Movie making is hard, damn work, with incredible financial risks. And like creating any work of art, releasing a film also requires thick skin. Critics are ready to pounce on a picture they are incapable of creating themselves.

For an alcoholic transvestite and hopeless dreamer, Ed Wood certainly had balls. He held grand ambitions in his heart. Wood was as dedicated to filmmaking as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock. He just wasn’t any good at it.

And so, I submit that the only sin a film can commit is to be boring. Plan 9 is anything but.

Personally, I'm holding out for a director’s cut with the Criterion treatment on a two-disc special edition.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.


  1. Isn't Ed Wood dead? How would there be a director's cut?

  2. Yes, Ed Wood is dead and has been since Dec. 10, 1978. My tongue-in-cheek comment was borne on the wish that there might be outtakes and other unused footage somewhere such that it might be added to the film and give us an even greater appreciation of his mad vision.

    I was also being facetious.




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